'Am I going to die?': How one man used his COPD diagnosis to change his life

Mark Balaban’s love of working with glass started when he was 12 years old. At the time, he had a job sweeping up the floors at a local glass shop and he slowly became interested in what people around him were doing. “I was amazed in how glass was cut,” he tells Yahoo Life. “Next thing I knew, I was 17 years old and opening my own glass shop. That's where it started.”

But Balaban’s work as the owner of Showerman Glass Shop would eventually lead to serious health issues. He regularly ground glass as part of his work, and his method of working caused him to accidentally inhale fine particles of glass. “You're kind of leaning over the machine and you're grinding the glass and you'd get a puff of like fog that would come up,” Balaban explains. “And what I would do is exhale and it would blow the fog away. And when I blew it away, I would take a deep breath. And then, as the smoke would come up again, I would blow it away and then take a deep breath.”

The New Jersey native says it “never dawned on me” to put on a mask. “That would simplify things,” he says. “But that's not something that's normal in the industry.”

Balaban started developing health issues — and he initially wrote them off.

“There were times that I would come back from a job site and I would be coughing up things and I'd say, ‘Oh boy, that place was terrible.’” Balaban also noticed he would have throat irritation, wasn’t breathing properly and just didn’t feel well in general.

“These were just things that I just thought were just part of life,” he says. “Over the years, as I got older, I started realizing that there were things that were bothering me and I said, ‘Well, what am I going to do about it?’” 

The tipping point was when Balaban had “pneumonia after pneumonia after pneumonia.” He was hospitalized seven times in one year, each time for a period of a week. He finally saw a pulmonologist who conducted testing on his lungs. “The doctor said, ‘Wow, what do you do for a living? Because I see all this little sparkly stuff in your lungs,’” Balaban recalls. “I figured it has to be glass grit from grinding glass for so many years. I would have never changed what I did for a living but I certainly would change how I did it.”

He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). When someone has COPD, less air flows in and out of their airways, leading to symptoms like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and other symptoms. 

“Everything is better since I’ve had COPD because I’m making my life better.”

Balaban says he was floored by his diagnosis. “I asked the doctor straight out: ‘Am I going to die?’” he says. “And the doctor said, we're all going to die someday, but you're not going to die anytime soon.” 

The glass blower’s doctor told him he would to learn how to live with his disease, and that included making some big changes. Balaban was put on supplemental oxygen to help his breathing, and he now exercises regularly. He also does deep breathing exercises and is careful about what he breathes in.

“I'm very, very careful not to breathe dust, not to breathe anything in my shop and especially cleansers at home,” says Balaban. And, when he needs to be in the workshop at his business, Balaban asks everyone to momentarily stop grinding glass.

His diagnosis also inspired him to make workplace changes for his employees. “They have rules they have to follow now, whether they like it or not,” Balaban says. For example, he now requires his employees to wear a mask before they grind glass. “There’s positivity that can come out of it and what my employees are doing now is protecting themselves from becoming me.”

Balaban says it took a year and a half to feel like himself again. “I’ve been on oxygen for the last two years and I find myself hardly using it now,” he adds. Now, he says, “I feel better, I taste my food better… Everything is better since I’ve had COPD because I’m making my life better.”

When he was first diagnosed with COPD, Balaban was worried that his life was over. “It’s not,” he says. “I’m not letting it stop me from living.”

Video Transcript

MARK BALABAN: The doctor said, wow, what do you do for a living? I see all this little sparkly stuff in your lungs. I figured, it has to be glass grit from grinding glass for so many years. I would have never changed what I did for a living, but I certainly would change how I did it.

I Was. Probably about 12, 13-years-old. There was a glass shop, and I would come in after school and I would sweep up or brush down the cutting table. I was amazed at how glass was cut. I was amazed in the things that we could make. Next thing I knew, I was 17-years-old and opening my own glass shop.

My son, Justin, he said, why don't you be ShowerMan, like a superhero. It stuck and we went from doing five shower doors a month to doing 150 shower doors a month. So to me, it wasn't work. I couldn't wait to get up and go to my shop the next morning.

We don't want to have sharp edges. So this is when you take the grinding machine and you grind it until it's smooth. It was the grinding of the glass that affected me. And of course, many years ago, we didn't have automated equipment. You had to take a grinding machine and you would grind this glass all day long, every day, breathing all these fumes, and the smoke, and the chemicals from the coolants that we were using.

I wasn't thinking that it was affecting me in any way. I had an issue where I wasn't feeling well. I wasn't breathing properly. I was getting pneumonia after pneumonia after pneumonia, and I was in the hospital seven times for a week at a time in one year. That's when the pulmonologist said, Mark, you have a chronic case of COPD and we have to put you on oxygen.

I really thought that I was going to die. We treated that antibiotic, oxygen, and so forth, and then did a lung exercise program. I started coming back from it, but it took me a good year, year and a 1/2 to actually come into my place of business with confidence again.

I come to work every day with no fear. As soon as I realized what it did to me, and many of my employees are a lot younger than I am, they have rules that they have to follow now. If you're going to pick up a piece of glass and you have to grind it, you've got to wear a mask. There's positivity that can come out of it and what my employees are doing now is protecting themselves from becoming me.

I've been on oxygen for the last two years and I find myself hardly using it now. There are times at night I feel a little uncomfortable. I put it on, but now, I don't look at it as something that scares me. I look at it as my friend.

I exercise now. I do deep breathing exercises. I feel better. I taste my food better. Everything is better since I've had COPD because I'm making my life better.

When I was told, I had COPD and I needed to be on oxygen, I thought my life was over. It's not, and to anybody who has COPD, your life is far from being over. I'm not letting it stop me from living.

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